By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Truong, it would seem, either is the victim of really bad luck, or is a really bad liar.
In a blue and white interview room in the Texas prison near the Red River, Truong looks like a teenager, and occasionally weeps like a baby. Stopping frequently to wipe away the tears from his eyes and blow his nose, he talks about his delayed, if not shattered, dream of becoming a business entrepreneur, about opportunities lost and friendships severed -- and about his own 15 minutes of fame.
At the age of 12, while living in the Allen Parkway Village housing project, Truong caught the interest of librarians as he led his three younger brothers and sister on their daily sojourn to the downtown library in a quest for knowledge. Their story was brought to the attention of a reporter from The Houston Post, and the paper put him on the cover of its Sunday magazine. The Truong family's saga intrigued several area educators, who pushed him to excel. He virtually became their cause. Truong was accepted into Houston Independent School District's magnet school for the engineering profession. At the University of Houston, he attended business classes; he also helped found a fraternity of Asian students and ran a T-shirt printing business on the side with the goal of qualifying for the university's entrepreneur program -- a fast track for the young would-be businessman.
But Truong came of age during a time known for its greed and in a city known for its conspicuous consumption; his love of quick money, fancy cars and attractive women made the boyishly handsome Truong a poster boy for the American male cruising in life's fast lane. Yet it still wasn't fast enough. Truong apparently decided to take a speedier, if not entirely legal, track in pursuit of his goals. In 1995 he received deferred adjudication, two years' probation and 300 hours of community service work after pleading guilty to credit card fraud involving the purchase of some computers. Less than two years later Truong was in even more serious trouble, this time after allegedly forcing his way into the home of the woman for whom he was doing his community service work and putting a pistol to her head. Once again Truong pleaded guilty. Although his family refuses to discuss his situation, at least one person truly believes, like Duke Truong himself, that the young man is innocent.
"It's just a gut feeling, but I am convinced Duke was railroaded," says Alice Freel, a retired English teacher who informally adopted the Truong family after reading about them in the Post.
Despite Freel's intuition about him, Truong is no longer on the fast track, and his runaway train of a life will remain derailed for some time to come. It will be another year at least -- he is eligible for parole in spring 2001 -- before he will be going home. For now, his dreams of a corner office and his own business remain on hold, as far away as his native Vietnam, while he does his time in a Texas Department of Criminal Justice prison cell.
After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the Truong family, fearing that anyone with ties to the United States would be placed in a concentration camp, fled to the countryside. Duke's father, a former soldier in the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese army, worked as a fisherman while searching for information about boats that took refugees out of the country and to the safety of United Nations camps in nearby Thailand. It would be three years before they would get their chance to slip away. They knew the escape was dangerous, that they would likely drown or be killed by either the Vietnamese military or floating groups of bandits.
It was sometime in 1978 -- he doesn't remember the month, but he was not yet six years old -- when Duke's mother awoke her children in the middle of the night and told them they were going to visit their grandmother in Saigon.
"It was a way to calm us down," Duke says. Instead of going to Grandma's house, the Truongs were about to board a 35-foot-long boat with about 100 other refugees, hoping they wouldn't sink or be noticed by Vietnamese soldiers.
"You really couldn't trust anyone during that time," says Duke. "Your neighbor could be your worst enemy."
It was raining, Duke remembers, when his family rendezvoused with the others at the stealthy location along the coast. With enough provisions for about a week, the boat people, as they would become known in the international media, headed out to open sea in their small overloaded vessel. It wasn't long before the motor blew out from the strain. Twice during the trip they were assaulted by pirates who took their supplies and small valuables, such as gold and diamonds, items that they had hoped to use to start a new life.
"We were lucky," says Duke. "Because a lot of people were killed [by the pirates]. They'd rob you, then drown your whole boat."
Out of food and water, the expedition was luckily discovered by the crew of a navy ship -- Duke doesn't know from what country -- who gave them provisions and directions to Thailand. But instead of reaching Thailand, the group drifted southeasterly across the South China Sea and made landfall in Malaysia. There they were put into a refugee camp, where they remained for about a year.
They watched as their friends were sent off to make new lives in places such as Canada, Switzerland and West Germany. As Duke was turning seven years old, he and his family were packed up and sent to the United States, the place they had dreamed of going. In the fall of 1979, after stopping first in California, they finally reached their destination: Houston. Their new home was a small space in Allen Parkway Village, the decaying public housing project which at the time had not yet met with the wrecking ball. Duke recalls being more impressed with some of the inhabitants of his new country than with his accommodations.
"I'd never seen anyone with blond hair and blues eyes," says Duke. "It amazed me."
Although he spoke no English, Duke was immediately enrolled at Pugh Elementary, where he was faced with either learning the language or being left behind. His inability to speak English caused him to have self-esteem problems. Duke was determined to overcome that barrier, and he credits the school's music teacher with helping him quickly learn the language through rhymes and songs.
"When the American students would laugh at me," says Duke, "I would work hard to say it right the next time. I came to speak English better through peer pressure. It was a way to communicate with other kids. When I couldn't communicate with them, I couldn't play with them. Back then, Star Wars [computer games] were popular. And to play with their Star Wars, you had to speak good English."
Duke soon got a handle on his new language. With the help of an old classroom-size blackboard reclaimed from the junkpile, Duke began teaching the new sounds to his younger siblings. They became so fluent that they began to irritate their mother, Hoa, who forbade them to speak English at home. Duke's mother worked at a Vietnamese bakery, where she made egg rolls. His father was employed as a welder. Despite his mother's initial aversion to English, Duke says both his parents eventually encouraged their children to embrace the American way of life. Their father, Tony, even allowed his children to become naturalized citizens and to take American first names. For example, Duke's name was originally Duc. (Ironically, the one Truong child who was born in the United States elected to keep his Vietnamese name.)
Though discouraged in their own home for a time, the Truong children soon found an alternative venue to practice English: the central Houston Public Library, their portal to new worlds and adventures.
Allen Parkway Village in the early 1980s might have been a step up from the structure the Truongs had occupied in Vietnam, a thatched hut with a sand floor, but it wasn't much of one. Their small un-air-conditioned APV apartment, located in the shadows of downtown's glistening skyscrapers, had gone to seed long before the Truongs' arrival. As in Vietnam, where the family had to tread carefully around neighbors, the Truongs soon realized that they also needed to exercise caution around their new APV-area neighbors, some of whom were drug dealers and gang members. Sometimes bullies would chase Duke and his siblings, or steal their money or backpacks. To escape the problems and dangers of the housing project, Duke and his friends explored the downtown tunnel system. They also delighted in the sanctuary of the downtown library: It was beautiful, at least to them. It was air-conditioned. It had elevators to play on. And of course, they could also check out books at no charge.
In 1984 Duke and his siblings and friends enrolled in a summer book-reading program at the library after learning that they could get certificates for free hamburgers if they finished a certain number of books. But soon they were reading simply for the pleasure of escaping, at least for a time, from their own miserable surroundings. That summer Duke read 109 books -- more than any other child in the program. His love of reading did not go unnoticed. A librarian contacted The Houston Post, and reporter Bonnie Gangelhoff (also formerly of the Houston Press) was assigned a story on the young refugee. Gangelhoff spent a good deal of time visiting the Truong home and following the kids on their treks to the library. Her subsequent article appeared in the October 4, 1984, issue of the paper's Sunday magazine. Twelve-year-old Duke was featured in the cover photograph, sitting barefoot in front of his recycled blackboard reading a large hardback copy of Return of the Jedi. Although he was smiling, he recalls being apprehensive about talking with the reporter.
"We were very scared," he says. "I didn't deal with a lot of Americans. Only when I was in the principal's office. So when I talked with Bonnie, it was like I sort of subconsciously felt like I was in trouble. I didn't know the impact of what she did at the time."
The impact was that Duke, on a small scale, suddenly experienced fame. The story moved many Post readers to drop off books for Duke at the paper; within the confines of the Houston Independent School District, he became something of a semicelebrity. He visited other schools, and everywhere he went other children gave him even more books. Duke's principal frequently invited him to her home on weekends to play with her children and eat fajitas. It wasn't until he visited her two-story house -- without burglar bars or broken glass, with a manicured yard in a nice neighborhood -- that he finally understood the concept of "the better life" that his mother and father often said awaited them, if they just worked hard enough.
"At Allen Parkway Village," he says, his voice cracking, "you could always look up and see the skyscrapers. And Mom would say, 'Son, one day you're going to have a corner office.' That's what she told me. And so I always wanted that corner office."
It was during this period of celebrity that Duke also began a relationship with a woman who would become something of a third parent to him and the other Truong children.
When her first husband was killed in the Pacific Theater in World War II, Freel was forced to support her children and began a career as an educator, working as the registrar and an English teacher at The Kinkaid School. She was still at Kinkaid in October 1984 when she came across the story of the education-hungry Truong children in the Post. The article so touched Freel that she and Fran Harrell, a Milby High School English teacher who has since died, decided that they had to meet the precocious Duke Truong and his family.
"I was so interested in a family that was so interested in getting an education and going to college and being good citizens," says Freel.
Freel and Harrell called the Truongs and arranged to visit them. On a rainy Sunday afternoon, they drove to the vicinity of Allen Parkway Village but ended up getting lost. From a nearby gas station, Freel telephoned the Truongs, and Duke was dispatched on his bicycle to retrieve them.
"They were such a tight-knit family," recalls Freel. "Their mother made sure they came straight home from school and weren't out kicking the can. We just fell in love with them. And we just simply adopted them."
Every Christmas Freel and her friend took them small presents or sent them cards. One year Freel knitted house shoes for each of the kids. On another occasion the family brought egg rolls over to Freel's home for lunch. Later that day they had ice cream at Harrell's house.
"We went over there, and we all had ice cream cones," remembers Freel. "She had them eat them in the kitchen because she was so afraid that they might spill something on her carpet. But they did not spill one drop. They were so well brought up, and so careful. Such marvelous children."
More than anything else, she and Harrell began corresponding frequently with the children. She and Duke developed an especially close pen-pal friendship. Mostly she inquired about his studies. Sometimes she enclosed a check for $25 or so. Duke still recalls how proud he was of his letters from Freel, how special they made him feel.
"When she wrote to me, I didn't think about her as old," says Duke. "To me, it was just a person who cared about me, and I would brag about her letters to my friends -- that I had an American friend. That was pretty cool. It was nice and beautiful. Something between us just clicked, and we've been writing to each other ever since."
Almost ever since. Three years ago Duke stopped answering Freel's letters for a time. And when he finally resumed writing to her, Freel was disappointed and shocked to learn the reason behind the silence.
In the fall semester of 1989, Duke and his Vietnamese friend Vinh Doung enrolled in Washington High School's magnet program for the engineering profession. It was a situation that met with great approval from Duke's parents, who very much wanted their son to become an engineer. They often spoke about how much money engineers made, what nice families they had and what nice cars they drove. That sort of lifestyle -- especially the part about the cars -- greatly interested Duke and his pal.
That September Duke and Vinh hooked up with a friend of theirs, Minh (Duke says can't remember his last name), who was a couple of years older than the two engineering students and who had just purchased a 1965 Mustang. Up until then the boys had been able to see Houston only from the window of a Metro bus. Now, they were mobile.
"We had this little car," says Duke. "We could finally do things. Look at us! It was the greatest thing that ever happened to us."
Two weeks after the start of fall classes, according to Duke, Minh decided to drive to San Antonio, ostensibly to borrow some money to buy a sound system for his new car. Duke and Vinh went along for the ride. On the rainy evening, somewhere outside San Antonio on Interstate 10, the car went into a spin and slid off a bridge, landing in a stream. Only Duke made it out alive, suffering a few minor cuts. He says he was overwhelmed with survivor's guilt. Just like Duke, Vinh had been the oldest male in his family -- the person counted on to do something great, and to help his brothers and sisters.
"When Vinh passed away," says Duke, "it really crushed his family, and it put a lot of responsibility on me. I was still alive and enjoying life, but I felt so guilty. One time later I saw his mom at a mall, and she just looked at me and started crying. It was so painful to see her. I just said hello and disappeared."
After the accident, an HISD counselor was assigned to Duke, and he attended a special school for kids in crisis for a few weeks. But after returning to regular classes, Duke saw his grades decline. Then, in 1992, just a couple of months before his graduation from high school, Duke, along with the rest of his siblings, was dealt another setback when their father suffered a fatal heart attack. The death left both Duke and his mother stunned. Tony's control over the family's finances had been so total that no one else in the Truong home even knew how to pay a bill. When Duke took a bill and some cash and asked one of his teachers to pay the account for him, the instructor asked the boy if he had run away from home. Only then did school officials learn of the Truong family's private pain.
Tony Truong's death also jeopardized his dream of putting his children through college. Duke was mere months away from a post-secondary education, and his sister, Victoria, was just a year away from college herself.
"We didn't know how we were going to do it, or what was going to become of our family," says Duke.
Despite their fear and grief, the Truongs moved forward. Duke's mother, who had left the bakery, got a manicurist's license and went back to work. Duke had wanted to attend the University of Texas at Austin, but instead enrolled at the University of Houston-Downtown. His junior year he transferred to the university's central campus.
Although his parents wanted him to be an engineer, and although he attended a high school with an emphasis on engineering, Duke developed an interest in computers. He recalls an early trip to the downtown library, when a librarian told him that all those books he was reading would one day be on computers. The forecast made an impression on him.
With the hope of qualifying for UH's Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Duke set up his own company, Zygon Marketing. One of the company's projects was the design and production of personalized T-shirts. Through Zygon, Duke became a sort of geek-gone-bad, dealing in the resale of computer software, a venture through which Duke apparently first began to push the boundaries of legality. Duke proudly admits that he and some other hackers -- his "associates" -- would take existing software, "improve" it and then resell it, in probable violation of copyright law. Duke saw Zygon Marketing as a quick ticket to a prosperous and limitless future. He applied for and received his own corporate American Express credit card, a sort of badge of honor for a U.S. businessman and the means to immediate purchasing power.
For a short time, life was apparently very good for Duke. He was making money. He drove an Acura coupe. He dated lots of women. He even helped found the University of Houston chapter of Lambda Phi Epsilon, an Asian fraternity. One of Duke's fraternity brothers, who asked not to be identified, says Duke was flashy.
"He liked to come off as a player, but he was also a gentleman," says the fraternity member. "But he also relied a lot on his charm."
His charm, however, was about to run dry.
Duke dodged his first legal bullet in September 1994, but his felony problems began in February 1995 when he was charged with felony theft. According to court documents, approximately two months earlier Duke had convinced one of his associates, Arnold Febre, to take two credit cards belonging to Duke and purchase four computer printers, a monitor and a modem at an Office Max store on the Gulf Freeway. Duke explained to Febre that he would then report the cards as stolen to the credit card companies so that the equipment would not be billed to his account. Office Max, however, apparently got wise to the scam and contacted the authorities. The Houston Police Department then put the squeeze on Febre, although it's unclear how they caught up with him. With an officer listening in, Febre telephoned Duke, who proceeded to incriminate himself during the conversation.
In May 1995 state District Judge Doug Shaver sentenced Duke to two years' deferred adjudication, $5,000 restitution and 300 hours of community service work. The sentence was handed down after he pleaded guilty to the charges. Duke still insists he is innocent. However, his explanation of the events is downright nonsensical.
According to Duke, what actually happened was that Febre stole his credit cards and his checkbook during gym class a couple of months before the computer purchases. Duke says he didn't learn of the theft until the woman who lived next door to him told him about it the day before his own arrest. His neighbor learned of the theft, says Duke, because she just happened to be dating Febre. Although he had lived next door to the woman for several years, and had been in business with Febre for a couple of months, Duke says he had no idea the two were seeing each other. Additionally, he says, he didn't confront Febre when told of the credit card theft "out of respect for her."
By the time he finishes the story, Duke is no longer making eye contact with the questioner and is damn near in the fetal position. As he continues his story about his brush with the law, each word seems to have less veracity than the one before it. His next tale also stretches credibility.
In early 1997 Duke was making good progress toward fulfilling the terms of his probation. He had completed more than 200 of his 300 hours of community service and had repaid the cost of the stolen computer equipment. He was well on his way to completing his deferred adjudication, which meant the crime would be removed from his record.
But in March 1997 the wheels came off when Duke was charged with burglary and aggravated assault. Amazingly, the incident involved the woman responsible for keeping track of Duke's community service hours at Texas Special Olympics.
By all accounts, during the previous two years Duke had been doing well in his role as clerical grunt at Texas Special Olympics: stuffing envelopes, answering phones or doing whatever needed to be done at the organization's Houston office on Fondren. Even the woman with whom he got crosswise, Heidi Barriga, says Duke had become a trusted and valued worker.
"When I told people at work what happened," says Barriga, "he was the last person anyone would have suspected to do it. It was a big shock."
In fact, says Barriga, Duke had been around the organization for so long, and was so highly thought of, that he was treated differently from other people sent there to do their community service work. For example, if Duke had homework, she says, he would be allowed to tend to his studies while answering the phone. This special treatment was apparently also the root of the problem. According to Barriga, Duke began taking advantage of his status. After Barriga became pregnant around the first part of the year, she was frequently at the doctor's office. She says others in the office told her that Duke took advantage of her absences by signing in when she was gone, then immediately leaving for the rest of the day. Around the same time, some of the petty cash in the office began to disappear.
Finally Barriga decided to confront Duke about the situation and left him a note informing him he was not going to get credit for the time he was not there, and that they needed to talk. But when they finally did talk, it was not under the circumstances Barriga expected.
On a weekday afternoon that March, Barriga pulled into the driveway of her Meyerland-area home with her two children, ages five and six. Since she badly needed to use the restroom, she hurriedly made her way inside. On her way to the bathroom, she realized she had left the door to the garage open. In order to keep her kids from wandering outside, she went back to close it. When she got there, she saw Duke standing in the doorway. He brandished a pistol and pushed his way inside.
"He started telling me that having to do these community service hours was ruining his life," says Barriga, "and that he wanted a letter saying that he had completed all of his hours."
During the confrontation, Barriga says, Duke seemed torn about what tact to take. At one point he put the gun to her head. Then a few seconds later he put the gun down. He asked about how her children were doing, and if there wasn't some way they could just talk this thing out.
"He'd say he wasn't going to hurt me, then turn around and say that if I called anyone he'd kill me," says Barriga. "It was kind of like he couldn't decide whether he wanted to be the bad guy or the good guy."
Barriga was scared and angry at the same time, and when Duke didn't have the gun on her she was screaming at him to get out of her house. When he finally did leave, Barriga called the police. Duke turned himself in the next day. Five months later he again pleaded guilty before Judge Shaver.
As with his earlier guilty plea, Duke now insists that he is innocent of the assault charges. He admits going to Barriga's home but says that he went there at her request. He claims that when Texas Special Olympics was relocating to another office in its building, Barriga asked him to help move some of the furniture. In exchange for moving the furniture, Duke says, Barriga promised him that she would tell his probation officer that he had completed his community service hours. (Duke told the Press that he needed only eight hours to fulfill his community service hours. Probation department records indicate that number was closer to 70.) A couple of days later, he says, Barriga asked him to stop by her house to sign papers that would show his community service work had been completed. But when he got there, he says, she reneged on the deal. Duke concedes that a heated argument ensued, but he denies pulling a gun on Barriga. However, he admits he did carry a pistol for protection -- protection from people who he says were jealous of his lifestyle.
"When I went out [on the town], not a lot of people like what I do," says Duke. "I had a lot of girlfriends. I was young, and I went out a lot. I partied a lot. I was 24 years old and on top of the world. I was making money, and I liked to celebrate."
The money, says Duke, came from a couple of sources. In addition to his studies and his community service work, he says, he had developed a little laptop computer sales business on the side. He bought Toshiba laptops wholesale and then jacked up the prices to his customers. "Toshibas are very user-friendly," he says, smiling ever so slightly.
What's more, he proudly and voluntarily boasts that he was involved in an "ambulance-chasing" scheme, apparently blissfully ignorant that rounding up accident victims for attorneys is illegal.
But while he may not have known the illegality of barratry, Duke insists he did not assault Barriga or force his way into her home. In fact, when he left her house that afternoon, Duke says, he told Barriga that he was going to report her to probation department officials. Unfortunately for Duke, she beat him to the punch, and a warrant was issued for his arrest. He says he pleaded guilty because his attorney convinced him that he could not beat the rap, and that he should take the best deal possible. Aggravated assault and burglary carry a combined maximum sentence of life in prison. When the Harris County district attorney's office offered an eight-year sentence in exchange for Duke's guilty plea, Duke says, his attorney urged him to take it.
Brian Coyne, the attorney who represented Duke, declined to comment on the case, explaining that he has a policy of not discussing his clients' affairs with the media. However, former assistant district attorney Brendan Gowing, now in private practice, says he never doubted Barriga's version of what happened at her house. He also says that just after Duke's arrest, Duke tried to convince him that Duke was the father of Barriga's child, but later admitted that was a lie.
Nor does Duke's portrayal of himself as a naive youth overmatched and victimized by the American justice system ring true, especially in light of the fact that he had beaten the system several years earlier. According to Harris County criminal court records, in September 1994, five months before his arrest for credit card abuse and computer theft, Duke was charged with the theft of an undisclosed item or items with a value of between $20 and $500, a class B misdemeanor. On that occasion, Duke elected to go to trial and was eventually acquitted.
It's hard to ignore three arrests in two years, but each time Duke gets in trouble he points the finger at someone else. He is either very persecuted or very troubled.
But even after confessing to Freel that he was in prison, Duke was still being evasive with her, as recently as March, about the events that sent him to jail.
"I am ashamed for being less than forthcoming about my credit card offense," wrote Duke in a letter to Freel, "but it is a greater shame to elaborate about [it] without a firm holding of the facts, documents and records. I cannot make clear of the credit card offense because I can't remember the facts -- and to elaborate on what I am not sure of will lead to more questions and speculations."
Despite Duke's obvious dodge of her questions, Alice Freel appears to be a very forgiving woman, and a very loyal friend. Overlooking the holes in his stories, his lack of candor and the fact that he has twice pled guilty to felonies, Freel insists that it is Duke who is the victim.
"I am convinced Duke was railroaded by [Barriga], who knew she had done the wrong thing and was afraid he would report her and she would get in trouble," says Freel. "She said to herself, 'Who would believe this little Asian boy who is already in a bit of trouble? They'll certainly believe me. They'll believe whatever I say.' That's the way I can see the whole situation. That's my view of it. Duke is my dear friend, and I want to help him any way I can."
In an attempt to help her friend, Freel decided in February to contact Gangelhoff, who wrote the Post article about Duke, in hopes that she might write another story. These days Gangelhoff is an editor at Southwest Art magazine, so she passed Freel's letter on to the Press. Several weeks after her inquiries, however, Freel suddenly had second thoughts about whether she wanted a story published, since the Truong family refused to be interviewed -- even after Duke encouraged them to cooperate.
When he first came to prison, Truong says, the boredom nearly drove him insane. Childress is almost 500 miles from Houston, and his family has been able to make the trip only once. To pass the time, he became a frequent visitor to the prison law library and filed numerous writs challenging his incarceration. In one Truong admits, although he doesn't concede guilt, that prescription pain medicine may have impaired his thinking during his confrontation with Heidi Barriga.
Truong also notes that ever since he informed Alice Freel about his situation, doing time has become a bit easier. The two write each other almost weekly. Her letters, he says, have inspired him to make the best of the situation. For the first time in a long time, perhaps since his days at Allen Parkway Village and the downtown library, he is reading for pleasure again. His reading list includes numerous books on art, a biography of Bill Gates and subscriptions to Newsweek, Time, Wired and, of course, Penthouse.
He also thinks about how his situation and Freel's are not that dissimilar, that in a sense they are both prisoners: he of the state, she of old age. Now, more than ever, he appreciates Freel's friendship.
"She is my spirit, and she gives me a reason to fight this," says Truong.
But there's also a parallel between Duke Truong and the two countries he has called home: Twenty-five years after the fact, the United States continues to grapple with its role in the only war it ever lost, never quite admitting to many of the offenses it has been accused of. Truong would appear to be in a similar situation. It has taken him two years to come clean with Freel about his crimes. Maybe he should come clean with himself.
E-mail Steve McVicker at firstname.lastname@example.org .